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An Ornithologist’s Response

Essay // published Nov. 3, 2020 // Tales From a Wandering Albatross

I wish I could write only about birds.

That I could go back to how it was, when my dreams held shards of words and images of flitting sparrows, dreams of opening eyes to the wonder of the natural world through birds. Dreams of articulating connections with the earth so deep I feel the words but cannot speak them. These dreams are skies filled with murmurations of starlings, clouds of thousands of birds, so thick that all I can do is stand and watch as they swarm around me in mesmerizingly complex shapes. A cohesive flock responding as one but with no leader, sinuously pulsating and shifting, no bird touching another, close enough that I can feel the air from their wings as they pass inches from my face.

Read the rest here: An Ornithologist’s Response


Flicker

Essay // published March 31, 2020 // Lammergeier

Driving home from work, you see something in the middle of the road. You’re on your street, about five houses down, on the tiny little hill—downhill on the way home, uphill on the way to work, the uphill that now after living there in that same house for four years and regular biking feels, finally, as small as it is, one-two-three-four pedals and up and over, all in the cold morning shadow of Mount Jumbo—on that hill, going home but driving, because you met someone at the climbing gym that morning at 7 a.m. before work and were too lazy to put your shoes-harness-chalk bag in your big-enough backpack because sometimes when it’s too full it hits the back of your helmet—on that hill, driving your car, you see a small dark blob in the middle of the road, right there across from the nature preserve.

Visit the Lammergeier website to read the rest of the essay: Flicker


Conversation With a Dipper

Essay // published March 12, 2020 // Entropy

“He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings—none so unfailingly.”

—John Muir, The Water-Ouzel. From The Mountains of California, 1894.

* * *

It is decidedly summer now in Montana, that time of year again when the meadowlarks and vesper sparrows sing loudly from the hillsides, when the wildflowers are blooming—bright scarlet paintbrush and pale pink bitterroot and wispy white prairie smoke—when winter’s heavy snowpack begins melting, frozen water transformed, what was once solid rushing towards the ocean in new form.

One late afternoon, I head to Kootenai Creek in the Bitterroot Valley, just south of where I live in Missoula, for a hike. The trail runs along the creek through a narrow drainage, hemmed in by rock walls and pines. The closeness makes me feel like I’m burrowing back to my Midwestern roots, to the thick deciduous forests of dappled sunlight and a horizon that never seemed far away. I walk through the trees, hidden from the vast views of the mountain summits and valley plains. After a few miles I find a boulder on the bank and sit to watch the water. As I set down my pack, I see a dark blur fly to a rock on the far side of the creek. A bird, slightly smaller than a robin. Plump little body with skinny toothpick legs, squat neck, short tail cocked up like a wren, or a chicken. Gray. An American Dipper. John Muir called them water ouzels, a name I’ve always liked. “Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream,” he wrote, “and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.” The dipper and I sit and stare at each other.

Visit the Entropy website to read the rest of the essay: Conversation With a Dipper 


Know This Place

Essay // published Aug. 16, 2018 // Parks & Points

The month after I moved to Montana I went to an environmental conference in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. There, I heard a Blackfeet elder say this: “We are bound by breath to honor and take care of this place.” The elder was speaking about conservation, and how it is important to care for all parts of an ecosystem—the watershed, the soil, the plants, the animals. To care, the elder said, you need to settle in a place and let it settle in you. Once this happens, you are bound by breath to honor and care for that place.What does it mean to be bound to a place?

Both a restless soul and my work as a seasonal field biologist lead me from field site to field site, generally in a different state, every three months or so. I mainly study birds, and over the years I’ve watched and listened to thousands of them, sometimes as they do very specific things, like build a nest or feed their young; at other times, I am simply documenting their presence for population surveys. My favorite jobs involve bird banding. This entails catching live birds, carefully taking a series of measurements, and releasing them unharmed with a tiny metal identification band around their leg.When I hold a small bird in my hand, I am mesmerized by details—minuscule wispy feathers covering a bird’s ear, and how the plain brown color of a sparrow becomes toffee and beige and chocolate and dry mud and wet dirt and chestnut and russet and cinnamon. A bird’s chest heaves as I work quickly to record numbers. There is no column in my data sheet for the number of breaths we each take.

Visit the Parks & Points website to read the rest of the essay: Know This Place


This Is How Much

Essay // published Summer 2018 // Alpinist Magazine, Issue 62

The day before my grandfather died, I went climbing in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Two friends and I headed to Mill Creek Canyon, near Missoula, where we all lived. South-facing walls of beige and toffee-colored rock, marbled with streaks of black, absorbed the late winter sun. It was unseasonably warm, more spring than winter, even in mid-February. Ravens soared in the blue sky, and we soaked up the light. It felt good to be out touching rock again after a grey winter of slogging through graduate-school classes, alternatively staring at the blinking curser on my laptop screen and out the window at the chickadees in the lilac bush, its dusky branches blended into drab snow and ashen clouds.

The rock at Mill Creek felt solid under my fingers, tangible in a way my keyboard never did. Across the valley, swaths of ponderosa pine covered the tops of the Sapphire Mountains, their dark green smudged into the soft hues of sagebrush covering their slopes. I was too far away to make out the individual trees, and the whole scene had the look of a watercolor—a storybook vision of the American West, a scene out of someone else’s reality. I hadn’t yet told my friends about Grandad: I wasn’t ready to say it out loud, to acknowledge his impending death, to embed it in language. I just wanted to climb.

To read the rest of the essay, purchase Alpinist 62 here: Alpinist Magazine, Issue 62